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GODZILLA – Alexandre Desplat

godzillaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

American film makers have been trying to do justice to Godzilla ever since he first appeared in director Ishiro Honda’s classic Japanese monster movie in 1954; although Godzilla is considered to be a significant icon of Japanese culture, Honda was himself inspired to create the King of the Monsters by watching Schoedsack and Cooper’s King Kong, and as such he has his roots in classic Hollywood. There have been 28 official Godzilla films released in Japan, the most recent coming in 2004, but only two American movies (three, if you count Cloverfield): the ill-fated Roland Emmerich directed disaster epic from 1998, which was scored by David Arnold, and this one, which is significantly superior to its predecessor, but still fails to capture the character’s essence according to the purists.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Ford Brody, a naval bomb disposal technician who grew up in Japan, where his father Joe (Bryan Cranston) and mother Sandra (Juliette Binoche) worked at the Janjira nuclear power plant. Having survived a catastrophic disaster there fifteen years previously, Joe is convinced that the government is hiding the real reason behind the disaster, and enlists his son for help. It is only then that the pair discover the truth: that the disaster was cause by a Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), an ancient creature which feeds off radiation, the existence of which various world governments have tried to keep under wraps for decades. Even worse, the Muto has a predator – the even more massive Godzilla, which was awakened during a deep sea expedition in 1954, and re-appears from its hiding place whenever a Muto appears. The film, which also stars Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn, was directed by the young British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, and has a score from an unlikely source: Alexandre Desplat.

When I say that Desplat is an unlikely composer to score a film like Godzilla, I mean that in the sense that, if you are only familiar with Desplat’s light romance scores or quirky music explorations with Wes Anderson, then you would likely consider the Frenchman incapable of generating the power and terror needed to convey a story like this. However, those familiar with his early work on French films such as Une Chance Sur Deux or Nid de Guêpes, or the action music in scores like Hostage, Firewall or The Golden Compass, know that Desplat has a much more brutal and aggressive side to his personality, and it is that music that comes to the fore here. To put it bluntly, Godzilla is enormous: large orchestra, loud volume, epic scope. Desplat made use of a truly massive orchestral ensemble, featuring double the usual amount of brass players, as well as a choir, to come in and elevate some of the score’s more emotional moments with the stirring spirituality of voices.

Themes are not this score’s primary function, but they are definitely there if you listen closely. Godzilla himself has a theme, introduced in the opening “Godzilla!”, which builds slowly throughout the score, hinting at his presence, before finally unleashing furiously during “The Wave”. It crops up later, with more than a hint of danger, in cues such as “Following Godzilla”, before receiving a wonderfully heroic fanfare performance during the final moments of the conclusive cue “Back to the Ocean”, which reminds me a great deal of equally spectacular “Iorek’s Victory” from The Golden Compass. There are smaller motifs, too, including a string-theme for the Brody family that gets its most prominent and emotional performances at the end of “The Power Plant” and at the beginning of “Back to Janjira”, plus a couple of instrument-specific indicators for the Mutos that herald their appearance, or accompany their devastating attacks.

As always, Desplat’s orchestrations are complicated, but astonishingly accomplished. With an orchestral ensemble of this size, where every instrument is playing fortissimo for significant periods of time, you would think it would be difficult to pick out the different textures and moments of instrumental interplay, but such is Desplat’s skill in this regard, it’s actually crystal clear, and a treat to sit and experience it all.

To capture the Japanese setting of much of the film Desplat weaves the plaintive call of a shakuhachi bamboo flute and the distinctive rhythmic timbre of taiko drums in and out of his orchestra, subtly alluding to the Oriental culture without it sounding like obvious travelogue music. Parts of “Inside the Mines”, “To Q Zone”, “Back to Janjira” and “Entering the Nest” really stand out in this regard. Cleverly, Desplat also pays musical homage to Akira Ifukube, the composer of the classic scores for the original Japanese Godzilla movies, especially in some of the percussive writing, and the flutter-tongued brass performances you hear in cues such as “Godzilla!” and the middle section of “The Power Plant”. It’s always gratifying to hear when a composer acknowledges the musical heritage of a franchise – Michael Giacchino did it in his “Roar!’ overture from Cloverfield too – as a sign of respect.

During the action sequences, Desplat constantly has different sections of the orchestra playing off against each other, creating musical conflict to enhance the on-screen conflict between the humans and the Mutos, or Godzilla and the Mutos. Listen to the way the different instruments of the brass section play different rhythmic ideas simultaneously 1:30 into “Godzilla!”. Pay special attention to the subtle but important incorporation of a piano rhythm during the otherwise frenzied finale of “Back to Janjira”, and to the slashing Herrmannesque strings dueling with the frantically ascending brass figures in “Muto Hatch”. It’s quite breathless stuff.

Later, as the score moves into its more action-heavy second half, Desplat’s music somehow gets even more powerful and relentless. Cues such as “Airport Attack” and the second half of “Missing Spore” contain so much gargantuan music that is really has to be heard to be believed; the aggressiveness of the string figures, the thrusting forward motion of the brass rhythms, the thunderous percussion writing, it’s really quite astonishing. In many of these cues Desplat pitches high-end string textures against low brass clusters, which then explode in waves of fury we haven’t heard since Elliot Goldenthal’s heyday, creating a genuine sense of impending danger.

The score’s finale, running from “Golden Gate Chaos” through to “Godzilla’s Victory”, is quite simply an unstoppable onslaught of music, some of the most carnage-laden but magnificent pieces of the Frenchman’s career. The dynamic flutter-tongued brasses return in the “Golden Gate Chaos” cue, offset by stark, almost Goldsmith-like piano and percussion rhythmic interludes. “Let Them Fight” has some truly staggering moments of orchestral dissonance. “Entering the Nest” uses repeated piano chords and electronic pulses to turn up the tension level to almost unbearable degrees, before exploding into yet more spectacularly complicated and brilliant brass writing, con legno string rhythms and haunting woodwind blasts. The drum interlude during “Two Against One” calls to mind images of ancient samurai, circling each other, preparing for battle. “Last Shot” is violent and extravagant and mind-bogglingly brilliant, while “Godzilla’s Victory” reprises Godzilla’s motif with immense clarity and poignancy.

Throughout all this, however, this is still very clearly an Alexandre Desplat score through and through. It contains many of his hallmark touches and compositional techniques, all of which are easily identifiable by those familiar with his canon, notably the low electronic bass pulse that permeates much of the score, which seems irritate quite a few people, but has always struck me as a stylistic hallmark unique to him. To me, this is the sign of a consummate film composer: one who has a personal and identifiable style which earmarks the music as being his music, but who is also capable of turning his hand to different types of music, different emotional requirements, across multiple different genres.

The only thing missing from Watertower’s album is a performance of György Ligeti’s “Requiem, for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs & Orchestra”, which was written by the great Hungarian classical composer in 1963, and was famously used in the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Having appeared in the film’s trailer, an edited version of the piece was tracked into the film’s exceptional high altitude military parachuting sequence, where its haunting, spectral choral textures provide a palpable air of anticipatory horror. Desplat does mimic some of Ligeti’s choral writing in cues such as “Airport Attack” and “Golden Gate Chaos”, and when he does the effect is exceptional.

I have read responses to this score which accuse it of being over-the-top and overwhelming, while simultaneously criticizing its lack of obvious thematic content. My advice to you: ignore these people. Godzilla is an absolute triumph in every respect. Conceptually, the large orchestral forces in play capture the immensity of Godzilla himself, while in compositional terms, of the techniques and instrumental combinations Desplat employs are stunningly good. Already in 2014, Alexandre Desplat has written a magnificent homage to WWII adventure films (The Monuments Men), a quirky celebration of European folk music (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and now, with Godzilla, a monster movie score for the ages. If any composer comes close to eclipsing his achievements this year, I will be astonished.

Buy the Godzilla soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Godzilla! (2:08)
  • Inside the Mines (2:25)
  • The Power Plant (5:49)
  • To Q Zone (2:55)
  • Back to Janjira (5:59)
  • Muto Hatch (3:13)
  • In the Jungle (1:59)
  • The Wave (3:04)
  • Airport Attack (1:47)
  • Missing Spore (3:57)
  • Vegas Aftermath (3:22)
  • Ford Rescued (1:23)
  • Following Godzilla (2:01)
  • Golden Gate Chaos (2:51)
  • Let Them Fight (1:38)
  • Entering the Nest (3:01)
  • Two Against One (4:15)
  • Last Shot (1:58)
  • Godzilla’s Victory (3:02)
  • Back to the Ocean (3:40)

Running Time: 60 minutes 27 seconds

Watertower Music (2014)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and Jean-Pascal Beintus. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin, Dennis Sands and Brad Haehnel. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat and Dominique Lemonnier.

  1. May 25, 2014 at 7:53 am

    In my opinion the music are all suiting to the film.

  2. May 30, 2014 at 12:57 am

    Wonderful review. I’m listening to it now, and picking out all the subtleties you mentioned. Desplat really has produced a masterclass here, subtle yet powerful, creative and rewarding to repeated listens. A certain german composer could learn a thing or two. Or three.

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